After two Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, killing 12 people and wounding 11, many in France resolved to defy terrorism by continuing to frequent cafés, enjoy movies and irreverence, and in general go about their liberal, secular way of life undeterred. Unfortunately, France has suffered two more major terrorist attacks over the past 18 months (which combined have killed over 230 people and injured hundreds more) along with smaller incidents. These have all chipped away at France’s defiant liberalism, which has been replaced by a more anxious kind of liberalism. In the prevailing political climate, terror threats are now increasingly coming to be viewed as part and parcel of daily life.
This has led to some extraordinary measures in France aimed at countering religious fundamentalism. One such measure in particular has caught the attention of global media—the decision by a number of French municipalities to ban the burkini (a portmanteau of burqa and bikini, the burkini is a swimsuit designed for Muslim women that covers the whole body, except the face, hands, and feet). The authorities see the ban as protecting liberal secularism, which France has a tradition of fiercly defending, and inoculating society from religious ideology. “It [the burkini] is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women,” declared French prime minister Manuel Valls (ABC). The most prominent recent episode related to this ban took place on a beach in Nice, where police confronted a woman and made her remove the long-sleeved blue tunic she was wearing.
The burkini bans have an antecedent: In September 2010, France’s parliament passed a law prohibiting all face-covering headwear in public places, including attire that covers the entire body like the burka. In March 2004, then-president Jacques Chirac signed a law forbidding the conspicuous display of religious symbols in state schools, ostensibly in the name of “secularity.” These related events are manifestations of France’s internal debate of identity about the kind of secular society that the country wants. What kind of relationship should the state have with pluralized, diversified religious institutions? What role does the intervention by Western governments in the Middle East and the ensuing refugee crisis play in radicalizing communities? And how can religious and secular leaders tackle religious extremism on the domestic front?
It seems unlikely that Buddhism has so far featured in France’s debate over religious extremism. But what might happen if a student were seen walking around a French college campus wearing a hoodie bearing a Buddha image and the text “May all beings be enlightened,” or a sweater emblazoned with a bright gold Dharma wheel? Would this be a violation of France’s ban on the conspicuous display of religious symbols? The prospect of French police fining that student or forcing her to remove the hoodie is a somewhat worrying one. This is not an abstract question, as plenty of Buddhists and non-Buddhists around the world own outfits decorated with distinctly Buddhist symbolism. Such apparel is easily purchased from Amazon and other major garment outlets, along with a host of Zen- and Tibetan Buddhist-themed fashion items.
Buddhism has so far been treated quite differently in Europe compared with Islam or even Christianity. During a keynote by Prof. David McMahan at the 6th Annual Tung Lin Kok Yuen Foundation Conference at The University of British Columbia in August this year, some pondered whether Buddhism received a “free pass” in the West on many questions of faith and secularism because so many Westerners do not even view it as a religion. Even the many Buddhists who do define their tradition as a religion are comfortable with secular applications of mindfulness and meditation, both of which are born out of long-standing collaboration of Buddhist leaders with psychologists and neuroscientists.
The demarcation between the secular and the religious within Buddhism is uniquely porous. We therefore pose the scenario about the Buddha hoodie to broaden reflections on the boundary between private faith (and the freedom to express and practice it) and public spaces in secular society. The time is also ripe to consider input from Buddhists who do practice in devotional ways—ways that, from a phenomenological angle, often overlap with Western presuppositions about the nature of faith (in less nuanced jargon, we simply mean that there are practices and statements from Buddhists that can be termed “religious”). Ultimately, Buddhism is not about taking political sides, as contentious, passionate, and high-stakes as the debate may be. Whatever inflicts harm and death on sentient beings is categorically rejected in Buddhism. Religious fundamentalism is, in the Buddhist context, a manifestation of extreme attachment and Wrong View.
Buddhists deeply sympathize with the victims of terrorism of the kind we have seen in France: the ideologically motivated desecration of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 remains seared painfully into the memories of modern Buddhists, while attacks by Islamic extremists or separatists across Asia—some of them deliberately targeting Buddhists (such as in Thailand)—underscore the necessity for proportionate and carefully considered measures to quench the fire of “jihadism.” Yet the complex porousness of what is “religious” and what is “secular” in Buddhism should give us pause to be cautious about simplistic solutions to the problem of religion versus secularity at a societal level. The picture is not as binary as many French politicians or anti-burkini commentators seem to assume. Because Buddhism itself is not as clean-cut “this” or “that,” it may be in a unique position to provide nuance and dimension to debates that have customarily been the domain of theistic religions and humanist or non-religious intellectual traditions.
Terrorist attacks: Why France? (euronews)
French police make woman remove burkini clothing on Nice beach following burkini ban (The Guardian)
France burkini swimsuit ban a ‘serious, illegal attack’ on freedom, human rights group says (ABC)
Column: The bare truth about French burkini bans (Chicago Tribune)
Do not wear headscarves; do not wear crucifixes; do not question the syllabus: France’s school rules (Independent)